Decorated initial I

In Bleak House Charles Dickens comments upon the major social and political issues of the day, such as Britain’s legal system, slum conditions, disease, and atmospheric pollution. When George Rouncewell travels north to find his long-lost brother, Mr. Rouncewell, the Ironmaster, Dickens dramatizes the familiar Victorian contrast between old and the new, which the novelist centres mainly on the Rouncewells and Phil Squod.

Bleak House depicts George Rouncewell, ex-military, as a very conservative figure as a sharp contrast to his brother, who exemplifies a new class of men —  the industrial and commercial upwardly mobile entrepreneur destined to join the ranks of the British establishment. He offers George a share in his thriving business, but the old trooper declines because he he prefers to stay in old-fashioned feudalistic service to Sir Leicester Dedlock at Chesney Wold ‘where there’s more room for a Weed’ (746).

The two brothers do have in common an involvement with metals, albeit with different metals and in different ways: the one with iron production and the other with guns. Mr. Rouncewell (never referred to by his first name) is a highly successful ironmaster who employs workers to produce iron on a large scale and whose business success has secured his status as what Thomas Carlyle called a captain of industry. George, an old trooper engaged in the modest business of running a shooting gallery, employs only one man, Phil Squod, who helps clean and main his rifles. His management of the gallery which he and Phil keep ‘in business order’ (328) helps him to maintain a small portion of his previous career as a cavalryman. As he tells his brother when refusing his generous offer, ‘You are not used to being officered; I am. Everything about you is in perfect order and discipline; everything about me requires to be kept so’ (746). ‘Perfect order and discipline’ are certainly the order of the day in George’s shooting gallery, and Dickens’ description of Squod’s work with the hammer-forged iron of the rifles emphasises how meticulously he cares for their mechanisms. He fulfils George’s requirement for ‘order and discipline’ as he keeps the guns in ‘business order’ and ‘screws and unscrews, and cleans, and files, and whistles into small apertures, and blackens himself more and more, and seems to do and undo everything that can be done and undone about a gun’ (329).

Conserving tin-ware

There has been nothing mechanically sophisticated about the metal products with which Phil Squod has dealt in his previous jobs. He has worked with tin, not as tinsmith but as a tinker’s assistant: i.e. he has not produced tin ware but has helped his master to mend it, and his time as a tinker’s assistant and as a tinker reflects the history of domestic tin-ware. Before the eighteenth century, tin-mining was a meagre affair. Tin ware was expensive, and in late mediaeval Europe tin production came to a virtual standstill with the exceptions of the Devon and Cornwall mines. Throughout most of the eighteenth century even their output did not increase, and production of tin remained constant at around a thousand kilograms per year until, the water-powered rolling mill founded by John Hanbury (1664–1734) in 1728 boosted tin production. The industry throve so such an extent that it produced 13 million boxes a year by the 1890s. In fact, tin so far outstripped iron that most familiar twenty-first century aluminium and plastic items of domestic ware were made of tin in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Braudel, 325 and 347). Squod, therefore, has had plenty of work as a ‘tin’ker repairing domestic tin pots and pans. Their plentifulness, however, did not encourage their owners to engage in unavoidable waste.

Today, with its astonishing tolerance of waste, the affluent west can afford to away throw old pots and pans. For many in the nineteenth century it was a different case, and, as a tinker, Squod has been conserving tin pots and pans for the inhabitants of ‘Saffron Hill, Hatton Garden, Clerkenwell, Smiffeld, and there-poor neighbourhood’ (327). So poor are the people he has served before he joins George that they cannot afford to throw anything away and ‘they uses up the kettles till they're past mending’. This conservation of resources contrasts with the new industrial profligacy born out of the expansion and diversification of the iron industry that Dickens depicts. When George first enters his brother’s office he notices ‘pieces of iron, purposely broken to be tested at various periods of their service’ carelessly littering the office (741-3). They are waste destined for disposal having served their purpose, an extravagance which the poor of Saffron Hill cannot afford.

The Human Cost

Phil’s previous jobs as tinker’s assistant and then as tinker have one traditional element that develops the relationship between the old and the new. Like the other ‘tramping tinkers’ who lodge at his master’s home, he worked not in a factory but there. Like most pre-industrial weaving, was also a cottage industry, this arrangement has a disarming domesticity, and when the tinker first hires him: ‘I was sent on a errand, and I see him a-sittin under a old buildin’ with a fire all to himself wery comfortable, and he says, 'Would you like to come along a me, my man?' I says, 'Yes,' and him and me and the fire goes home to Clerkenwell togethe’r’ (327). This seems all very cosy, but the physical damage which Squod suffers tending a small forge in a traditional occupation links him to the physical damage inflicted on those who worked in the inferno-like conditions of the new industrial furnaces. For to enable his erstwhile master to repair his customers’ pots and pans Phil has had to maintain the fire in the forge to smelt the tin for repair work and this has ruined his appearance. He has blown the fire with his mouth instead of a bellows, like the girl who tends the Jellybys’ fire (40), has spoiled his complexion, singed his hair off, swallowed the smoke, and ‘being nat'rally unfort'nate in the way of running against hot metal and marking myself by sich means’ and ‘having turn-ups with the tinker as I got older’, his ‘dozen years in a dark forge’ has transformed his ‘beauty’ which was ‘wery queer’, into an ugliness fit ‘to be made a show on!’ (327).

According to the observers who had been horrified by the inferno-like furnaces of the early Industrial Revolution, Dickens’s character narrates a common experience of labourers both before and after the Industrial Revolution. For example, when Arthur Young (1741-1820) travelled around Shropshire in the West Midlands in 1776, he had ‘viewed the furnaces, forges, etc., with the vast bellows that gave those roaring blasts, which make the whole edifice horribly sublime’ (quoted by the Dugans, 47). The actor Charles Dibdin thought that Coalbrookedale wanted ‘nothing but Cerberus to give you an idea of the heathen hell’ and that furnaces ‘surrounded on all sides by such a number of infernal objects’ were a vision of the last judgement. As to the workers, Dibdin thought that they could be mistaken for ‘devils and fairies’ (49) while Carlo Castone della Torre di Renzionico Comasco thought they looked like Dante’s imps ‘gathering with a hook the souls of the damned into a lake of pitch’(48). Young, Dibdin, and Comasco observed key elements in the industrial revolution — the huge furnaces which drove the mass production of cheap iron in the early years — and the human cost of working with them, but as Dickens’s Phil Squod makes clear this terrible cost was not something entirely new for metal workers but rather an enormous, terrible magnification.

The Entrepreneur and the Baronet

Workers may suffer but Mr. Rouncewell, a successful ironmaster, thrives. Dickens describes him as ‘strong and active’ (351) with a ‘strong Saxon face’ (352) and like the real-life ironmaster, Abraham Darby IV (1804-1878) who was appointed High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1853, he is destined for a significant upward social move — a second career as a member of Parliament. The prospect of such an industrial parvenu in the ‘mother of all parliaments’ disgusts Sir Leicester, since he sees it as a subversion of the traditional order:

‘And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions,’ says Sir Leicester with stately gloom, ‘that I have been informed by Mr. Tulkinghorn that Mrs. Rouncewell's son has been invited to go into Parliament.’

Miss Volumnia utters a little sharp scream.

‘Yes, indeed,’ repeats Sir Leicester. ‘Into Parliament’.

‘I never heard of such a thing! Good gracious, what is the man?’ exclaims Volumnia.

‘He is called, I believe-an-ironmaster.’ Sir Leicester says it slowly and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a lead-mistress or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal. [350]

Sir Leicester’s reaction is exactly what one would expect of a member of the landed gentry faced the ambitions of a new industrialist and commercial man like Rouncewell, but in this he does not actually represent the British establishment, which easily neutralised the threat to its own power and position from the new entrepreneurs by simply absorbing them into its own ranks, joining them in commercial enterprises and, as reflected in Rouncewell’s case, socially advancing them. This peculiarly English settlement of the potential conflicts between the traditional landed classes and the new money exemplifies how the tensions between the old and the new were resolved. When George asks a workman where he might find Rouncewell, the answer is multivalent: ‘The bank, the factory, or the house’ (742). This response accurately itemizes the key elements in the life of the new Men, the industrialists, the entrepreneurs, and captains of industry: their combination of the traditional and the modern — industrial success, commercial enterprise, and the retreat to a well-established country house which, along with ennoblement, set the seal on their success.

George’s military past

George’s feudalistic devotion to serving a baronet protects him from any temptation to emulate his brother or to share his success (p. 746). In his own way he is as conservative Sir Leicester, for he is content with running his shooting gallery and being of service at Chesney Wold. largely because of his military past. When George talks to Grandfather Smallweed in Chapter 21, Dickens first emphasises his physical resemblance to his brother: ‘well made, and good looking, with crisp dark hair, bright eyes, and a broad chest’, and ‘sinewy and powerful hands’ (264), but then reveals how his military past is determining his present. He ‘sits forward on his chair as if he were, from long habit, allowing space for some dress or accoutrements that he has altogether laid aside’; his step too is measured and heavy and would go well with a weighty clash and jingle of spurs’; ‘close-shaved now’; mouth ‘set as if his upper lip had been for years familiar with a great Moustache’; and ‘his manner of occasionally laying the open palm of his broad brown hand upon it is to the same effect’ (264). He also insists on referring to Captain Hawdon. As he tells the Smallweeds, ‘you gentlemen took me in. You advertised that Mr. Hawdon (Captain Hawdon, if you hold to the saying 'Once a captain, always a captain') was to hear of something to his advantage’ (269).

George cannot shake off his past, but he meets modern England when he sets out for the north to find his brother, ostensibly on the matter of Watt and Rosa’s engagement but just as importantly to ask his brother to send his declaration of love for Esther by an untraceable route. He encounters the industrial revolution in full swing, and Dickens produces what the coming of industry had established as a division between, as some thought, the old, rural England (South, of course) and the new, industrial England (the North): ‘As he comes into the iron country farther north, such fresh green woods as those of Chesney Wold are left behind; and coal pits and ashes, high chimneys and red bricks, blighted verdure, scorching fires, and a heavy never-lightening cloud of smoke become the features of the scenery’(741). But the ‘never-lightening cloud of smoke’ is not so much a scenic feature (ironic as Dickens’ image is) as an alien modern presence which obscures the ancient scenery.

Adding to the reactions to the Industrial Revolution

Dickens adds to the existing accounts of the industrial activity in which the Captains of Industry excelled but which was polluting the atmosphere then as now:

George comes to a gateway in the brick wall, looks in, and sees a great perplexity of iron lying about in every stage and in a vast variety of shapes--in bars, in wedges, in sheets; in tanks, in boilers, in axles, in wheels, in cogs, in cranks, in rails; twisted and wrenched into eccentric and perverse forms as separate parts of machinery; mountains of it broken up, and rusty in its age; distant furnaces of it glowing and bubbling in its youth; bright fireworks of it showering about under the blows of the steam-hammer; red-hot iron, white-hot iron, cold-black iron; an iron taste, an iron smell, and a Babel of iron sounds [my emphasis, 742].

In a letter of November 1st 1838 Dickens had encountered the industrial revolution in full swing at Birmingham and Wolverhampton: ‘So we were compelled to come here by way of Birmingham and Wolverhampton, starting at eight o’clock through a cold wet fog, and travelling, when the day had cleared up, though miles of cinder-paths and blazing furnaces, and roaring steam-engines, and such a mass of dirt, gloom, and misery as I never before witnessed’. Dickens here responding as many others had done to the industrial revolution. From the earliest days, writers had feared that it had transformed old England into a modern ‘furnace’. For instance, when Coleridge returned from London to Kendal in the unspoiled Lake District via Birmingham in the West Midlands (1812) from his carriage window he saw ‘a cluster of enormous Furnaces, with columns of flame instead of Smoke from their chimneys’ and slag-heaps from the coal mines with ‘pools and puddles of water smoking’. The experience gave him ‘Sleep-adventures’ in an underground inferno of ‘Brimstone’. ‘Brimstone/Birmingham’ – the assonance is close (Letters, 371). And a German visitor, Friedrich von Raumer in his England in 1835 observed of Wolverhampton that ‘trees, grass and every trace of verdure disappear. As far as the eye can reach, all is black, with coal mines and iron works, and from this gloomy desert rise countless slender pyramidal chimneys whose flames illuminate the earth, while their smoke darkens the heavens: the whole is exceedingly striking, probably unique in its kind; but the interest of the movement would quickly vanish if I were obliged to prolong my stay in this Vulcan’s forge’ (Volume 3: Letter 63, 29th August). Later in the century John Ruskin too saw an England shrouded in black furnace smoke: ‘In my final collation of the lectures given at Oxford last year on the Art of England, I shall have occasion to take notice of the effect of this character of plague-cloud on our younger painters, who have perhaps never in their lives seen a clean sky!’ (34.18n12). In his first lecture, however, his opposition to the ‘plague-cloud’ —  the smoke from furnaces — went further than ‘spoiling the painter’s view’. He takes an extreme position and argues that he would care about the knowledge acquired by astronomers if only ‘I could be told where this bitter wind comes from, and what it is made of’. He surmises that it is partly ‘poisonous smoke’ and points to ‘at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me’. (39, 33).

In Bleak House, when George goes to meet his brother, Dickens extends the record of writers’ responses to Britain’s industrial development, adding an image of a superabundance of industrial products destined to become a careless redundancy. Before George arrives at his brother’s office, he notices the fate of surplus iron: ‘mountains of it broken up, and rusty in its age’ (742). And when he enters his brother’s office (as I noted above), he finds it dominated by ‘pieces of iron, purposely broken to be tested at various periods of their service’; ‘iron-dust on everything’ and a backdrop of ‘smoke…rolling heavily out of the tall chimneys to mingle with the smoke from a vaporous Babylon of other chimneys’ (741-43). Rouncewell has left the pieces of iron which have served their purpose lying around as so much disposable rubbish, a luxury which Phil Squod’s customers would never afford. To complement the image of disposability, Dickens creates a backdrop of the coke burnt in the furnaces being disposed of as clouds of useless but harmful smoke.

‘Pieces of iron’ litter Rouncewell’s office, and ‘rusty keys, of which there must have been hundreds huddled together as old iron’, ‘heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls’, ‘several second-hand bags’, and ‘dirty bottles-blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles’ comprise the contents of Krook’s shop (48-49). The office and the shop contrast sharply with Squod’s meticulous, patient maintenance of the gallery’s guns, and his previous conservation of material possessions belonging to people too poor to afford the disposability exemplified by the office and the shop.

An affable parting

Just as Squod’s conservation contrasts with the ironmaster’s acceptance of disposability, so George’s conservatism contrasts with his brother’s social mobility (746). George gives as one of his reasons for rejecting his brother’s offer of a share in running the family business that he has laid down roots in Chesney Wold and that it is ‘too late to plant me in a regular garden’. His other reason reveals how blinded by his military past he is to the obvious. He has seen the litter which surrounds his brother’s office and yet, without a trace of irony or a hint of rebuke, he can say

‘There it is, brother,’ cries the trooper, checking him, with his hand upon his knee again; ‘there it is! You don't take kindly to that idea; I don't mind it. You are not used to being officered; I am. Everything about you is in perfect order and discipline; everything about me requires to be kept so. We are not accustomed to carry things with the same hand or to look at 'em from the same point’ [746].

George has refused to move into the family business, but there is no acrimony. Before he leaves, the brothers enjoy ‘a pleasant ride, a pleasant dinner, and a pleasant breakfast, all in brotherly communion’, and the distinction between them is clear. As George rides away, one brother turns ‘his face to the smoke and fires’, and the other ‘to the green country’. And in one final delightful touch Dickens implicitly refers to both men’s interests: Mr. Rouncewell’s ironworks and George’s military past. George rides away to the metallic sound of ‘the imaginary clank and jingle of accoutrements’. The image reinforces their ‘brotherly communion’.

The railroads and the urban fog

George heads back to Chesney Wold where his mother has become a fixture during her fifty years in the house: ‘She is a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat, and has such a back and such a stomacher that if her stays should turn out when she dies to have been a broad old-fashioned family fire-grate, nobody who knows her would have cause to be surprised’ (78). And she herself is content, rather like her son, to see the House as defining the limits of her existence, for she admits without curiosity or resentment: ‘There may be a world beyond Chesney Wold that I don't understand’ (78). Chesney Wold defines her existence, but also she defines Chesney Wold: ‘It is the next difficult thing to an impossibility to imagine Chesney Wold without Mrs. Rouncewell’.

In addition to dramatizing the old lady’s determination to remain in the past, Dickens takes an important moment in the narrative, her anguished visit to see her son in jail, and transforms it into an element in his discourse on old and new. She and Mrs. Bagnet shun the up-to-date way of travelling and opt for the old-fashioned way: they travel from Lincolnshire to London in a ‘chaise and pair’ which ‘makes its way without a railroad on its mind’ (654). That last detail is not necessary to the narrative but it introduces an important enhancement of Dickens’s discourse on the old and new:

Railroads shall soon traverse all this country, and with a rattle and a glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon paler; but as yet such things are non-existent in these parts, though not wholly unexpected. Preparations are afoot, measurements are made, ground is staked out. Bridges are begun, and their not yet united piers desolately look at one another over roads and streams like brick and mortar couples with an obstacle to their union; fragments of embankments are thrown up and left as precipices with torrents of rusty carts and barrows tumbling over them; tripods of tall poles appear on hilltops, where there are rumours of tunnels; everything looks chaotic and abandoned in full hopelessness. Along the freezing roads, and through the night, the post-chaise makes its way without a railroad on its mind. [654]

Dickens’s impersonal construction creates the sense of an independent power at work that is evident also in his presentation of the new railway in Dombey and Son. In both he deliberately hides the identity of the agents responsible for preparing, measuring, starting to build bridges, banking up the earth, abandoning carts and barrows, and creating an impression of chaos and despair. No one seems to be responsible. The railway is a huge new independent force which ‘shall soon traverse all this country’ seemingly of its own volition (654).

This short section, which adds nothing to the plot, neatly complements Dickens’ presentation of the ubiquitous urban fog in Bleak House. The fog goes where it likes: like a railroad traversing ‘all this country’ it is ‘everywhere’. It is on the Essex marshes and on the Kentish heights. Up the river, it gets ‘among green islets’ and the meadows; down the river ‘it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city’. It creeps ‘into the cabooses of collier-brigs’; it lies out ‘on the yards, and hovers ‘in the rigging of great ships’; it droops ‘on the gunwales of barges and small boats’; and there are ‘chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds’ (5). The fog, like the railroads, acts of its own and not human volition, actively involving itself in events. For instance, it eclipses the sun, preventing its light: ‘The purblind day was feebly struggling with the fog’ (45). And although, despite the personification of the day, this a naturalistic detail which embeds the action in a credible world, there is nothing naturalistic in this: ‘the very little counsel drops, and the fog knows him no more’ (10). This is extraneous to any strictly narrative considerations, but the image of the fog dismissing the counsel as of no more interest reinforces its role as an independent presence answerable to none for its actions and whereabouts.

Dickens, who deliberately disguises the human agencies at work in constructing the railways, makes clear the origins of the fog’s near neighbour - the smoke that also pervades the novel. He makes two pointed references to industrial smoke, both when George observes the north, where he sees ‘high chimneys and red bricks, blighted verdure, scorching fires, and a heavy never-lightening cloud of smoke’ (741) and ‘the smoke…through the windows rolling heavily out of the tall chimneys to mingle with the smoke from a vaporous Babylon of other chimneys’ (743). The origins of this smoke are obvious. So too the smoke from the smoking habits which many of the characters have: Mr. Pardiggle, the drinkers in ‘The Sol's Arms’, Smallweed (aptly named after his addiction among other things), Mr. George, Mr. Weevle, Mr. Bagnet, and the smoke from domestic fires. But Dickens disguises the origins of the fog and offers no definition, perhaps because introducing into the narrative a definition of the fog as a ‘thick mist or watery vapour suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth's surface’ would be as crass as Gradgrind’s insistence that a horse is best known as a ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth’. Gradgrindery suppresses the romantic images a horse might inspire in a young mind. To articulate the origins of the fog would take away the mystery of the fog’s ubiquity. The fog seemingly comes from nowhere and is as primaeval as the Megalosaurus which the narrator imagines waddling through the mud (5).

Dickens has carefully complemented the threatening fog, a key element in the novel’s major discourse on the obfuscations of an ancient legal system, with what might easily be regarded at first sight as simply a digression on the anonymous agents who create the modern railway.

Horror but a ‘pretty ending’

As well as the origins of urban smoke, Dickens makes clear the origins of the squalid environment in which Tom-all-Alone’s is situated. When Mr. Bucket and Mr. Snagsby see it, Mr. Snagsby passes along ‘the middle of a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water’. His reaction to the lack of proper sewers and fresh air, and the resulting filth have their impact on him. They cause a violent reaction in him: he ‘sickens in body and mind and feels as if he were going every moment deeper down into the infernal Gulf’ (277). Despite the ever-present fog and mud, the wearisome grinding of the ancient legal wheels, Richard’s death, Mrs. Jellyby’s callous neglect of her children, the horrors of Victorian slum life in Tom-All-Alone's with its ‘nauseous air’ where the ‘lamp of life’ ‘winks … at many horrible things’ and the moon stares balefully at a ‘desert region unfit for life and blasted by volcanic fires’ revealing the ‘blackest nightmare in the infernal stables’ (551) - despite of all this, Dickens closes the novel in a very forgiving and humane manner for selected characters who live by old-fashioned codes. Indeed, according to a letter he wrote to Mrs. Watson from Boulogne on the 27th August, 1853, he himself liked ‘the conclusion very much’ and thought it ‘very pretty indeed’. Dickens has chosen an epithet which points to his agreeable settlement of affairs.

Most of Chesney Wold has been moth-balled its owner continues in his old ways, ‘holds his shrunken state in the long drawing-room’, and ‘reposes in his old place before my Lady's picture’. Dickens’ final image of the House is one of stagnation as the light of the drawing-room dwindles to nothing, and with it, Sir Leicester. The house is simply abandoned ‘to darkness and vacancy’. Neither summer nor winter are of any moment and without a family and visitors it is ‘sombre and motionless: ‘passion and pride, even to the stranger's eye, have died away from the place in Lincolnshire and yielded it to dull repose’ (767).

The contest between Sir Leicester and Mr. Boythorn evolves into a strange kind of compromise, for by the end of the novel Boythorn accepts a very precious, time-honoured settlement – compromise based on a willingness on his part to understand and even tolerate. Publicly he continues with his placard campaign, ignoring Sir Leicester in church, but he restricts his attacks to the privacy of his own four walls and acts quite considerately towards the baronet. Sir Leicester, of course, remains ‘blissfully unaware in the dignity of being implacable, little supposes how much he is humoured’. In the end Dickens affectionately presents them as slightly absurd: ‘So the quarrel goes on to the satisfaction of both’ (764). Sir Leicester receives excellent end of life care from Mrs. Rouncewell, George, and his physician (692), and the narrator praises his courageous ‘stand against distress of mind and body’. Dickens transforms his previous pompous blustering which formerly had ‘something ludicrous in it’ into something ‘serious and affecting’. And he goes further in his praise. He notes his ‘noble earnestness’, ‘fidelity’, and ‘gallant shielding’ of Lady Dedlock’s reputation. In all of this, the baronet exemplifies very old-fashioned and admirable gentlemanly values: ‘his generous conquest of his own wrong and his own pride for her sake, are simply honourable, manly, and true. Nothing less worthy can be seen through the lustre of such qualities in the commonest mechanic, nothing less worthy can be seen in the best-born gentleman. In such a light both aspire alike, both rise alike, both children of the dust shine equally’ (698). In this Dickens implies a parallel between Sir Leicester and George, who also demonstrates qualities which are ‘simply honourable, manly, and true’, and to see the same qualities in ‘the commonest mechanic’ and ‘the best-born gentleman’ is an ideal not exclusive to Dickens. Samuel Smiles would offer his version in Self-Help in 1859:

‘I will give a hundred French louis,’ said the Count Spolverini, who stood by, ‘to any person who will venture to deliver these unfortunate people.’ A young peasant came forth from the crowd, seized a boat, and pushed into the stream. He gained the pier, received the whole family into the boat, and made for the shore, where he landed them in safety. ‘Here is your money, my brave young fellow,’ said the count. ‘No,’ was the answer of the young man, ‘I do not sell my life; give the money to this poor family, who have need of it.’ Here spoke the true spirit of the gentleman, though he was but in the garb of a peasant [399].

Dickens is also close to the cosy mediaevalist sentiments in Lord John Manners’ ‘England’s Trust’ (1841):

Each knew his place - king, peasant, peer, or priest
The greatest owned connexion with the least;
From rank to rank the generous feeling ran,
And linked society as man to man.
Gone are those days, and gone the ties that then
Bound peers and gentry to their fellow men. [lines 349-52]

In the conclusion to Bleak House Volumnia’s behaviour strikes the one discordant note. She loves to grace a public ball, but Dickens mocks her empty-headedness: ‘the tuckered sylph’, ‘her condescension’, ‘her girlish vivacity’, ‘her skipping about’, and her twirling and twining like ‘a pastoral nymph of good family’. In this silly bucolic scene, the waiters, transformed into swains, indiscriminately serve tea, lemonade, sandwiches and homage. She herself is emotionally superficial, being ‘kind and cruel, stately and unassuming, various, beautifully wilful’. Dickens sums up this modern little thing in one final crushing sentence: ‘Then is there a singular kind of parallel between her and the little glass chandeliers of another age embellishing that assembly-room, which, with their meagre stems, their spare little drops, their disappointing knobs where no drops are, their bare little stalks from which knobs and drops have both departed, and their little feeble prismatic twinkling, all seem Volumnias’ (766).

Fading gentility (‘glass chandeliers of another age’) meets contemporary inanity but in the end the House still features, apart from Sir Leicester’s ‘simply honourable, manly, and true’ virtues, positive relationships. Dickens is asserting the persistence of human goodness as he sees it to be: ‘A goodly sight it is to see the grand old housekeeper (harder of hearing now) going to church on the arm of her son and to observe-which few do, for the house is scant of company in these times-the relations of both towards Sir Leicester, and his towards them’ [p. 765]. And the trusted George Rouncewell has moved into a lodge at Chesney Wold where he can not only be near Sir Leicester and his mother, but also retain the services of his former assistant Phil Squod. Specifically Squod does what Squod does best -he maintains some of George’s old military equipment in a ‘gleaming bright’ condition, so continuing what he has done as a tinker and in the shooting gallery – conserving and keeping things ‘in business order’ (p. 328) and not allowing the ‘stirrup-irons, bits, curb-chains, and harness bosses’ to resemble the kind of litter cluttering Krook’s shop, Rouncewell’s office desk, and Richard’s room (p. 764-765)). What he produces has no value on the open market. It serves one of George’s most precious ideals. As George tells his brother: ‘Everything about you is in perfect order and discipline; everything about me requires to be kept so’ (p. 746).


Braudel, Fernand. The Wheels of Commerce. London: William Collins Sons & Company Ltd., 1983.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977.

Dickens, Charles. The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume 1, 1820-1839 Edited by Madeline House and Graham Storey. London: Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2017.

Dugan, David and Sally. The Day the World Took Off-The Roots of the Industrial Revolution. London: Macmillan, 2000.

Manners, Lord James Robert, M.P. England’s Trust and Other Poems. London: Francis and John Rivington, 1841.

von Raumer, Friedrich Ludwig Georg. England in 1835 . London:John Murray, 1836.

Smiles, Samuel. Self Help with illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1897.

Last modified 3 July 2019